Robert Browning: Poems

Robert Browning: Poems Themes


Much of Browning's work contemplates death and the way that it frames our life choices. Many poems consider the impending nature of death as a melancholy context to balance the joy of life. Examples are "Love Among the Ruins" and "A Toccata of Galuppi's." Other poems find strength in the acceptance of death, like "Prospice," "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came," and "Rabbi Ben Ezra." Some poems – like "My Last Duchess," "Porphyria's Lover," "Caliban upon Setebos," or "The Laboratory" – simply consider death as an ever-present punishment.


If any prevailing philosophy can be found throughout all of Browning's poetry, it is that humans are not composed of fixed perspective, but instead are full of contradiction and are always changing. Therefore, a wise man acknowledges that every person sees the world differently not only from other people but even from himself as his life changes. Many of the dramatic monologues make this implicit argument, by suggesting the remarkable human facility to rationalize our behavior and attitudes. Consider "My Last Duchess" or "Porphyria's Lover." Even those who believe that there is a truth to be discovered, like Rabbi Ben Ezra or St. John, acknowledge that each man must get to it in his own way and through his own journey.


Perhaps Browning's most effectively used literary device is dramatic irony, in which the audience or reader is aware of something of which the speaker is not aware. Most often, what this dramatic irony reveals is that the speaker is deluded or does not quite realize the truth of something. Some poems feature a demented character who is not aware of the extent of his or her depravity or insanity. Examples are "My Last Duchess," "Porphyria's Lover," "Caliban upon Setebos" and "The Laboratory." Other poems feature a character whose reasons for behavior are not as clear-cut as he or she believes. Consider "Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister" or "The Bishop Orders His Tomb at St. Praxed's Church." Finally, one can observe manifestations of this in less obvious ways through poems like "Fra Lippo Lippi," "Andrea del Sarto," "A Death in the Desert" and "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came." In these cases, the narrators are not clearly insane or demented, but are so fixed in their own perspectives that they are unable to appreciate why they are being punished or oppressed.


Though Browning's work typically eschews the Romantic poetry that was once his greatest influence, he does continue to contemplate the nature and limits of beauty through his poetry. Some of his poems take beauty or love as their primary subject: "Meeting at Night," "My Star," "Two in the Campagna," or "Life in a Love." Of course, even these poems always contemplate the theme through the lens of an individual's unique perspective. Others see absent beauty as a cause for melancholy. Consider "Home-Thoughts, From Abroad," "Love Among the Ruins," and "Evelyn Hope." Even some of the more sophisticated monologues consider beauty and the pursuit of it as something that can torment us. Examples are "Fra Lippo Lippi," "A Toccata of Galuppi's," and "A Death in the Desert."

The quest

A theme that runs through much of Browning's poetry is that life is composed of a quest that the brave man commits to, even when the goal is unclear or victory unlikely. In some poems, this quest is literal, particularly in "Childe Roland to Dark Tower Came." This is a useful poem for considering the use of the quest in other poems. Some of them use the metaphor to suggest the difficulties of living in the face of inevitable death: "Prospice," "Two in the Campagna," "Rabbi Ben Ezra," and "Life in a Love." Others have less intense quests than that which Roland undertakes, but nevertheless show Browning's interest in the theme: "Meeting at Night," "How They Brought the Good News From Ghent to Aix," and "A Grammarian's Funeral." Overall, the theme serves as a metaphor for life and most poems can be understood through the lens of "Childe Roland" in this way.


Through Browning never proposes a fixed religious perspective or subscribes to any organized religion, much of his poetry contemplates the nature or limits of religion. Most often, he casts doubt on the structure and hypocrisy of organized religion. Consider "Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister," "The Bishop Orders His Tomb at St. Praxed's Church," and "Fra Lippo Lippi." However, Browning often creates characters whose religious sense is a strong part of their personality. In all of these cases, of course, each individual has his own unique take on religion. Examples are "A Death in the Desert," "Caliban Upon Setebos," and "Rabbi Ben Ezra." Finally, much of Browning's poetry can be interpreted through its lack of a religious sense, a world that has death and an afterlife but eschews any relation to a God. This happens in some of the grander poems like "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came" or in the more personal ones like "Prospice."

The grotesque

One of the elements in Browning's poetry that made him unique in his time and continues to resonate is his embrace of the grotesque as a subject worthy of poetic explanation. Most often, he explores the grotesque nature of human behavior and depravity. Consider "Porphyria's Lover," "Evelyn Hope," and "The Laboratory." Then there are examples like "Caliban upon Setebos," where the character is easy to sympathize with while being objectively a grotesque creature. And then there is "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came," which plunges head-first into a grotesque landscape.